Christmas Candle-light Service
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 2:7-12 Sermon
December 21, 2004
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
42 O Come All Ye Faithful
27 O Little Town Of Bethlehem
23 It Came Upon The Midnight Clear
24 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night
30 Angels We Have Heard On High
48 What Child Is This?
25 Hark The Herald Angels Sing
16 Silent Night, Holy Night
15 Joy To The World, The Lord Is Come
HAVE A CUTE CHRISTMAS!
TEXT: “And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
If you went to your mailbox today, you probably had some Christmas cards in with the rest of your mail. For this past month, I would imagine that this is something you expect.
But let’s say that as you started opening up your cards, someone sent you a card which said, “Have a Cute Christmas.” As you kind of puzzle about this sort of greeting, you find a couple more with that same wish for you. Have a Cute Christmas. Now what in the world would move someone to send you that sort of a greeting?
Now I haven’t had anyone send me a card saying, “Have a Cute Christmas,” nor has the clerk at Wal-Mart or Super Saver wished me a cute Christmas. It would seem very strange indeed if they did that.
If it seems strange, maybe we should take a look at some of the other things that are happening at this time of year. Let’s start out by walking through a Hallmark store or some other similar card or curio shop. We’re met with a sort of cinnamon/apple spice scent in the air. We slowly browse back and forth looking at all of the ornaments and figurines. Someone picks up an ornament, smiles and says, “Oh, isn’t that cute!”
We would have to agree. Almost everything on the shelves could be described as cute. So we go to Target, or Shopko, or Wal-Mart, or Dillard’s, or walk through the mall, and I can guarantee you that virtually every merchant you encounter is going to be able to provide everything you need for you to have a cute Christmas.
Christmas seems to be the time that we all like to feel the “warm fuzzies” about the season. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sipping a hot buttered rum, the music of Christmas carols playing in the background, the soft conversation of family and friends, a decorated tree, and yes, everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe will help to make the season bright.
The commercialism and hectic pace of Christmas is always a downer, but the message of something warm and cozy and cute seems to be the recurring theme through everything. The world wants us to have a cute Christmas, filled with Kodak moments and Polaroid smiles.
Now I’ll be the first one to admit that I enjoy this type of thing about as much as anybody. I really do. I love the decorations, the songs, and the warm and fuzzy and cute things that Christmas has to offer. Christmas is one of my most favorite times of the year, and I’m sure it always will be.
In the Christian community, Christmas has a very harsh and stark reality about it. The Son of God is born in Bethlehem, in a stable among animals. He comes with a purpose, which is to redeem the sinful human race. From the very beginning this child is destined to be despised and rejected, and then he will ultimately die as a criminal. This seems so far removed from the picture we get of “The Little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” that we have right now.
This idea of a cute Christmas has tempered the way the Christian Church looks at Christmas too. This evening I read the section of the Christmas story from Luke 2 where it talks about Mary wrapping the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger. What kind of a picture do you get when you hear the words, “swaddling clothes?”
People usually picture this, and portray it as a new-born baby, wrapped up and snuggled into something that looks like a warm and cozy hospital blanket. And the manger is pictured something like a nice soft crib, all plush with hay and straw. And so the baby Jesus would appear to have something about as near to a comfortable crib as he could have under those conditions.
Swaddling clothes. In the original Greek, this is one word, “es-par-gone-oh-sen.” The word “swaddle” is actually a mis-spelling of the word “swathel” which means to tightly wrap or bind in bandages. The verb form is the word “swathe.” And the word “clothes” should actually be “cloths,” actually referring strips of cloth.
In studying this word “swathe,” I decided to quickly run it on the Internet to see what I could find. I was taken to the Johnson and Johnson homepage, where I read the description of the “Padded Shoulder Immobilizer,” which included both the swathe and sling.
This Greek word, “es-par-gone-oh-sen” appears only two places in the entire Bible, in verse 7 and verse 12 of Luke chapter 2. Vincent’s New Testament Greek Word Studies notes that this word is commonly found in medical writings. Remember that God used Luke the physician to record this gospel, so he most certainly knew the correct medical term as it applied here.
So putting this all together, this is what Mary would have done with the baby Jesus: she would have folded a single piece of linen over his body, and then she would have tightly wound his entire body with strips of cloth about an inch wide. So when all was said and done, the baby Jesus would have looked something like a little mummy.
But you know, somehow saying “she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” sounds a whole lot better, a whole lot more palatable, than saying “she bandaged him tightly in strips of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough.” Somehow this doesn’t fit the concept of a baby wrapped all snug in a hospital blanket sleeping peacefully in his make-shift crib. A baby in a blanket is cute; a baby bandaged from head to toe isn’t.
Another item of special note, is that not every child was bandaged this way. This was done mostly among the poor, who lived in cold drafty houses. This was the most efficient way to keep a new-born baby warm if you didn’t have the luxury of a warm house and nice cozy blankets. It was something that the elite of society wouldn’t necessarily do.
This method of bandaging became important in another way too. The angels appear to the shepherds. And what are they told? The angel says, “and this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Whoa! What’s this? A Saviour is born? The promised Messiah? And he’s bandaged up like the poorest of the poor, and he’s in a manger to boot? The angels of heaven are singing praises, and this is how he comes to this earth?
But the angel’s message was clear. First, the baby would be swathed or bandaged; and second he would be in a manger. The shepherds knew exactly what to look for.
The cold and cruel reality of it all. Nothing cute and cozy here. Nothing that would make it into the Hallmark store. Definitely not a cute Christmas.
Christ’s birth was cold and cruel, not just because of the surroundings of his birth. Jesus Christ, true God, entered into a world filled with sin. He entered as the poorest of the poor as far as earthly riches are concerned. He came, not in glory or in riches, but in complete humility. He came to redeem the entire human race from the trap of the devil. He came to crush Satan’s head and win the victory over death and hell. He came as the poorest of the poor, so that through faith in him, we would become rich in grace and inherit a room prepared for us in God’s heavenly mansion.
Sin in our lives is never cute. But how often do we try to take the cold reality of our sinful selves, and sort of soften it with nice sounding words or rationalize it with some sort of noble purpose? How often have we put other activities or things ahead of God, and rationalize it with the words, “well, God will understand?” How often have we softened our sinful greed with the excuse, “well, I’m just trying to get ahead in life?” How often have we tried to sweeten gossip with the excuse, “well, it’s true, isn’t it?” How often have we tried to disguise sinful anger with the words, “righteous wrath?” The list goes on and on…
Paul writes in Galatians 5, 19-21: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft,; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
So no matter how we try to dress it up or soften the blow, there’s no way we can hide the coldness and cruelty of sin. It’s ugly, and it’s very, very real. Sin is definitely not cute.
But it is here where we need to see our Saviour the way he really is as well. Christ entered into what we call his state of humiliation, that is, he set aside his Godly glory at the time he took on human flesh. He came down to our level and lived among the sinful human race. He left all the glory of heaven to live with us for awhile. Definitely nothing cute about that.
His earthly life of a little over three decades was fraught with poverty and hardship. His punishment, his crucifixion, and his death was that of a criminal. One could hardly define that as cute at all.
And so when we journey in spirit to Bethlehem each Christmas, somehow we like to visualize a warm looking wooden stable, and not a cold dark cave. We like to visualize a baby wrapped up in a nice warm blanket and not bandaged from head to toe. We don’t want to smell the manure or think about a cow relieving itself only a few feet away from the new-born Jesus. This just doesn’t fit our Christmas ideal; but yet it is the stark reality of it all.
But yet amongst it all, we find a real beauty, a true beauty. It is a beauty that isn’t found in nice sounding words or cozy surroundings; because the beauty is in the Christ-child himself, and nothing else.
What the shepherds saw on the hillside outside of Bethlehem was only a brief taste of what would eventually become a real everlasting beauty. They saw the heavens open and angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men!”
The message came through everything loud and clear. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.” And for Christians, this message still rings through everything.
The harsh reality of the birth of Christ and the harsh reality of our sinfulness aren’t pleasant things to have to encounter. However the Christ Child has come to bring peace on earth to all people, regardless of their station in life.
And so, as sinful as we are, we approach that manger, not to see a cute little baby, but to see our Saviour. We come in faith with the sure knowledge that the babe of Bethlehem is the one that will bring us into fellowship with God. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons on earth, born to give them second birth.”
Yes, there is our Saviour, and it is through our personal faith in him that we indeed shall be forgiven of all our sins and one day be taken out of the harsh world of sin into his heavenly glory.
The stable and the manger were not intended to be cute. But what we see in that manger is something that is beauty beyond anything we would ever experience.
This Christmas, I hope that you experience all of the good and warm feelings that this season has to offer. As we enjoy all of these nice things, we can also appreciate something that is so much more meaningful.
As we enjoy the Christmas lights, remember Christ who is the light of the world. As we enjoy the beautiful decorations, remember the heavenly glory that we and all believers will experience. As we enjoy the special foods and Christmas treats, remember Christ who is the Bread of Life, and our future with him in the land flowing with milk and honey. As we sing and hear the Christmas carols, may we be reminded of the beautiful angelic choir that announced the Saviour’s birth, as well as the great heavenly chorus we shall someday experience. As we appreciate the fellowship with each other, remember our fellowship together in Christ and our renewed fellowship with God. And as we give and receive our Christmas presents, remember Christ who gave us the greatest Christmas gift of all; for he gave himself to us so we could have life.
And so, as we once again journey to the manger in spirit, let us proclaim with the hymnwriter: “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!”